By JIM NICHOLS
Mixing love of country with religion has been a common event throughout history. Seemingly, it seldom ends particularly well.
Bible readers are familiar with the origins of Judaism and the torturous tale of the people of God searching for their own land. You can get lost rapidly trying to understand the historic diplomatic, military, and religious conflicts in what we call today the Middle East. My hunch is that if we were asked to distinguish between the modern terms “Israel,” “Palestine,” “West Bank,” “Gaza Strip” and some others, we would flounder. It is confusing. During this past election time there was frequent mention of Israel by people who, I believe, were saying one thing but meaning another.
One item that does seem to be clear is that the historic people of God (the Israelites) display a national life of wandering, seeming abandonment, and rescue. It appears to never end.
I had some videos I used in biology classes that illustrated “real-life” applications of the science. One segment dealt with winemaking and the science of growing grapes that, when processed, would produce wines with different flavors.
Much of the content of that video occurred in the grape fields and illustrated in detail how grapes from one sort of vine could be mixed with those of another sort by grafting. Branches of one plant are cut off and physically attached to a cut area of another plant; the workers literally used tape to fasten the two plants together. In many cases, the two plants melded together and produced grapes (and wine) with a mixture of flavors.
Of course, grafting branches of plants together is an old trick, and it appears strategically in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul spends a lot of time in a back and forth explanation regarding the relationship of Jews and Gentiles and God’s purpose. As a Jew himself, he is clearly promoting Jews as God’s initially chosen people. He proposes, however, that many in the Jewish group had fallen into a legalistic trap of “correct works” and had missed the point of the importance of faith. In Romans Chapter 11 he uses the illustration of grafting by suggesting that Jewish branches can be removed and replaced by Gentile branches so that they share the same trunks and roots. As a matter of fact, grafts can be reversed if they do not work out well. As a Gentile, it is a powerful image for me.
Despite that, I have never felt that I had a clear understanding of my relationship as a Christian with modern Judaism. One specific incident spoke to my heart, although not altogether clearly.
As a graduate student, I was a laboratory instructor. At the beginning of a semester we had an organizational meeting of the main professor plus all 25 graduate student/lab instructors. One of the tasks was to agree upon a weekly meeting time during which we would plan the coming week’s lessons. Finding a common, no-conflict meeting time was always difficult.
Every time from Friday night through Sunday was a non-starter. The professor suggested Thursday night, but it was noted that there was a class several of us were taking ourselves on that night. The same problem arose on Monday night. When Tuesday night was suggested, the lone Jewish female in the group noted that she had another meeting that night. It seemed to be narrowing down to Wednesday night.
During that semester, my wife and I had begun a Bible study small group in our apartment on Wednesday nights. As I waited, sweating for someone else to have a Wednesday conflict, there was none. I timidly raised my hand and the professor said, “What’s your conflict, Nichols?” I said, “I have a Bible study that night.” Every student there (a secular group) roared with laughter. Just as the laughter died down, the group’s class clown said loudly and profanely, “Bible class? Jesus Christ!” Another roar of laughter.
As it quieted, the Jewish girl raised her hand. She kept her hand up while she spoke to the professor but looked at me the whole time. “I know I said I could not come on Tuesday and I was the only one. I believe I can change that meeting. Let’s meet on Tuesday.” The professor said, “Fine. Next topic.”
I deeply regret that I never had a conversation with her following that. Why did she intervene? Perhaps, she was just being nice. I wonder, however, if her mind did not say, “He is a different branch than I am, but we share the same root. My people have been ridiculed and persecuted and yet have been rescued. I have a chance to rescue him and I am going to do it.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain